Restorative uplift during trying times

Tear-jerkers and feel-good pics find their way

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The transcendent experience, that illuminating moment of tearful redemption, is as much a moviedom cliche as the swelling violins that often accompany it.

Far from being discarded in this cynical, vituperative, instant-media age, films that have audiences grasping for their hankies continue to feed public demand while attracting box-office bling, critical support and, when the stars are aligned, awards.

It could be argued that in the midst of the country’s economic doldrums and relentless political pessimism, movies that provide a positive emotional lift are more necessary than ever. “Up” and “The Blind Side” filled the bill last year, as did “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) and “Seabiscuit” (2003) before that.

This year’s elevating equestrian drama is “Secretariat,” which exhibits an against-all-odds dynamic even though the title’s thoroughbred was, in the words of a stunned sportscaster at the time, “a tremendous machine.” Just as Secretariat’s dogged owner and his equally ardent trainer represent the triumph of the human spirit, not to mention the power of love and faith, several other films released this year — such as “Conviction,” “The King’s Speech,” “127 Hours,” “The Fighter” and “How to Train Your Dragon” — traffic in similar emotions.

“There’s always a place for a transcendent experience,” says Danny Boyle, the director of “127 Hours,” whose lone hiker at death’s edge, the intrepid architect of his own survival, is the sort of story that gives hope to the hopeless. “Movies have always celebrated that. This man gets a chance to test himself in ways that he never imagined he would. It’s not a cliche in these circumstances — it’s well-earned.”

Boyle, whose “Slumdog Millionaire” — 2008’s Oscar-winning picture — was what he calls “the ultimate triumph-of-the-underdog movie,” says he revels in stories that tell of some extraordinary journey, usually beginning with extreme hardship. “The resultant euphoria is not easily arrived at,” Boyle says, “and what we feel is all the more fulfilling because of that.”

David Sterritt, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, says people have always used movies as escapism, all the more so when times are tough.

“Who wants to see misery on the screen when there’s already too much of that in society?” he asks. Some escapist pictures work well as entertainment, Sterritt says, “because they tell upbeat stories with sincerity and authentic feeling, but others make me feel bad because they trade in hackneyed ‘uplift’ formulas and cheap, syrupy emotionalism.”

It’s those perpetual tear-jerkers, he says, that give the movie business a bad name. “Give me tough-minded truth over sticky sentiment even in the worst of times,” Sterritt goes on. “A little escapism is fine, but basking in too much Hollywood uplift produces self-delusion instead of self-understanding.”

With that in mind, this season’s best feel-good picture, in Sterritt’s view, is probably “Conviction,” which he says is “no masterpiece, but tells a true story with energy and, well, conviction, and has excellent performances to put it across.”

Tony Goldwyn, the director of “Conviction,” says the picture is “right in line with movies that are about faith, about the triumph of love over adversity, and people relate to that.” The film’s female lead, Hilary Swank, plays a Massachusetts woman who spends 18 years “on an act of faith,” Goldwyn says — a seemingly hopeless quest to have her brother exonerated for the murder of a neighbor.

“That family bond moved me and inspired me to do it in the first place,” he says. “We like to think we’re cynical, because we’re less emotionally vulnerable that way, but in the end we really want those kinds of movies. People are questioning the whole political structure, and American ideals are under fire. It’s a time of great doubt. But my picture is about family, and that strikes a chord with people — they think, that’s something I can grab on to.”

Speaking from his dressing room on Broadway, where he was appearing in the musical “Promises, Promises,” Goldwyn came to the defense of “The Blind Side,” which pulled in rough notices for what some considered was its by-the-numbers depiction of a white woman helping the black downtrodden.

“People were very snooty about that film,” Goldwyn says. “But audiences went crazy for it.”

Randall Wallace, who directed “Secretariat” and wrote “Braveheart” and “Pearl Harbor,” says he is as wary as anyone whenever he hears talk of an “inspirational or uplifting” film.

“I’m suspicious that I might be getting a movie without any knuckles in it,” he says. “I’m not a philosopher. I don’t like dogma and I hate to be preached to. But I believe in the power of faith and hope and courage, and I would rather be in the battlefield trying to manifest these things than standing on the sidelines, jeering. You don’t want to live in a world which means nothing.”

Wallace, whose rendering of the Triple Crown winner’s story is rife with encomiums to perseverance, grit and boundless affection, says that “existence of courage, and certainly of love itself, is a miracle of human life.” He gives as an example the “absolute clarity” a parent feels “when you hold a newborn baby, and you have the certainty that you would lay down your life in an instant” for that child.

Such feelings, and their almost universal appeal for movie audiences, have far greater value in Wallace’s sagas than, as he says, “stories that show us heroes whose abilities we’ll never have — leaping tall buildings in a single bound or making webs from the tips of fingers.”

“I enjoy fantasy, but the stories that hit the deepest for me are the ones that transcend the heart,” he says. “I’m not as brave or as heroic or as full of faith as the characters I portray, although I’d like to be more like them. They offer an example of a way to live more fully.”

The appeal of Secretariat, Wallace says, was the nation’s reaction to the horse’s stunning performances in 1973, at a time when the U.S. was deep into the Watergate scandal and remained embroiled in Vietnam and its attendant nightmares. “Everywhere we looked there was chaos, destruction and disgrace,” he says. “Along came a horse who was incorruptible, who ran from pure heart. The power of Secretariat’s story is not in the statistics: It’s the essence of joy.”

Audiences, he reports, have been “screaming at the screen, even though they all know the outcome.” In the film, Wallace says, “I’m not aiming to tell people that courage matters and love wins — I’m aiming to have them experience that.”

Other filmmakers concur that, when people are riding a rough patch, “going to a movie that might lift them up is exactly what they’re looking for,” as Todd Lieberman puts it. Lieberman, a producer of “The Fighter,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale and directed by David O. Russell, says the only reason his relatives and friends back in Cleveland go to the movies “is to make themselves feel good.”

While “The Fighter,” the tale of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward and his miscreant brother, cannot remotely be described as family fare, “it is definitely an underdog movie, but outside the realm of normal underdog movies,” Lieberman says. “There are issues of drug use, and the family is a mess. But it is about a family, about love. Boxing is really just the device. The sport itself is a manifestation of what’s going on around these people.”

Lieberman and his fellow producer at Mandeville Films, David Hoberman, agree that even with the demand for inspiring tales, good ones are hard to find. “The trick is to find an original story by which to cloak that uplifting drama, a story that gives you that same good feeling,” Hoberman says. “This is the
most passionate film we’ve ever done.”

Passion and inspiration have a long track record in movies. Michael Sragow, author of “Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master” (Pantheon Books, 2008), says that Golden-Age Hollywood responded to war and the economic chaos of the Great Depression with “savvy combinations of realism and uplift.” There were the flirtatious Astaire-Rogers movies, muckrakers and tragedies such as “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” (1932) and “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) and breezy comedies like Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” (1934).

During World War II, “Casablanca” (1942) was a sterling example of movie magic meeting the hard truths of war, a “genius melding of romance and moral conscience,” Sragow says.

“The ability to face reality with a smile that’s not just an idiot grin — that’s often been a specialty of great mass entertainment,” Sragow says. ” ‘Seabiscuit,’ I think, got it right. It might have done even better if released last summer. But ‘Secretariat’ has real entertainment value, and so did ‘The Blind Side,’ which was often criticized for what it got right.”

For Bonnie Arnold, producer of “How to Train Your Dragon” and the first installment of the “Toy Story” franchise, hope is a crucial ingredient of any film.

“Anything that’s utterly hopeless doesn’t work for me,” she says. “The take-away is that you can laugh and cry in the same movie. Leaving there and having some hope — that’s what’s going to keep people going to the movie theaters.”